The following story appeared in the October 7 Idaho Catholic Register.
Our Lady Queen of Heaven Chapel is about 50 miles south of Nampa. (ICR photo/Gene Fadness)
By Gene Fadness
and Mary O'Malley
OREANA – On the second Saturday of every month, Father Bill Taylor, a “retired” priest who lives in Nampa, makes a nearly 100-mile roundtrip to the Owyhee County settlement of Oreana – an unincorporated area south of Nampa – to celebrate Mass. Other than the ranches and farms that dot the high desert landscape, about all that remains of Oreana are a pioneer cemetery and Our Lady Queen of Heaven Catholic Church.
“I’ll come here as long as I can walk,” said the 84-year-old Father Taylor. The well-known priest and author has served in many places since his 1964 ordination, but it is in Oreana where he most in tune with his pioneer heritage. “My family were ranching people. This is the strongest connection to the Old West of any place I know,” he said.
The stone church, built first as a store in about 1883, is a place of isolation and respite for many who come either monthly or on special occasions to make a pilgrimage away from the bustle of the growing urban area an hour’s drive to its north and east.
Regular attendees include descendants of the original pioneer families, such as the Nettletons and the O’Malley’s, as well as those who have since discovered the sacred spot, like the Duke Bulanon family, a Filipino family who make up the “choir” for the small congregation that typically numbers between 15 and 20.
Bulanon, an engineering and physics professor, may be the only practicing Catholic professor at Northwest Nazarene University. However, it was a Church of the Nazarene friend who told him about Our Lady Queen of Heaven in Oreana about 10 years ago. “He’s a biker who discovered the church in Oreana and said he likes to go and listen to the service. He said it was really peaceful,” Bulanon said about his Nazarene friend.
The Bulanon family started attending Mass there, but there was no music. “So I asked the priest if I could bring my guitar.” Ever since then, Bulanon, his wife, Ella, and sons, Ichiro and Jiro, now 23 and 18, lead the music every month, even during the winter. “This is just my way of serving God, because I couldn’t really pay Him for what’s He’s done for me,” Bulanon said. A member of St. Paul’s Parish in Nampa, he doesn’t mind the monthly trek to the country. “I look forward to it because it’s my day in Oreana.”
ACCORDING TO A thorough history written by Mary Nettleton O’Mally, the church building is the last standing of a cluster of stone and mortar buildings that included a school, hotel, saloon and homes that were part of Oreana, one of the first settlements in Owyhee County, started in about 1865. The few Catholics there had Mass in a community hall where they had often been a dance the night before. “The altar was improvised from benches, and confessions were heard behind the piano,” writes O’Malley, who still attends Mass at Our Lady Queen of Heaven.
The building that is now the church was once a store, built in about 1883, but it had also been a post office, a saloon, boarding house and a granary. When it was donated to the Diocese of Boise in 1960, only the stone walls were standing. Daylight was visible through the roof and the remains of a dead cow were discovered in a basement storage space that had caved-in, O’Malley writes.
Father Bill Taylor, a priest-in-residence at St. Paul’s in Nampa, has been making the 50-mile drive to Our Lady Queen of Heaven in Oreana for about 10 years. Mass is celebrated there on the second Saturday of every month at 10 a.m. (ICR photo/Gene Fadness)
Father Herbert Merzbach, S.M, one of the many Marist priests who served at St. Paul’s in Nampa, led the effort to convert the deserted building into a church named Our Lady Queen of Heaven.
According to a 1955 interview by Doug Wachs in the Nampa Idaho Free Press, Father Merzbach was born in Germany and practiced law in Berlin. He moved to Spain to join the Marists and study theology in France. He taught at seminaries in Belgium and Holland, but joined the French Foreign Legion as the Nazis began their conquest of much of Europe. When France fell, he was smuggled to Algiers in North Africa, where he taught at a seminary and became an auxiliary chaplain with the U.S. Army.
After the war, Father Merzbach emigrated to the United States, with the help of his sister, a physician in New York City. After teaching Greek and Latin at a Marist seminary in Philadelphia, he moved to Minnesota, teaching linguistics, and then to Idaho. He spoke six modern languages and was fluent in several ancient languages. “Father spoke about 17 languages, but we’re not sure one of them was English,” joked Robbie O’Malley.
The priest was the “inspiration and architect,” for the renovation, Mary O’Mally writes, doing some of the work himself and enlisting the help from volunteers from nearby Mountain Home, Nampa and Boise. Funds were donated by area Catholics with help from the Catholic Extension Society.
That outside renovation included roof repair, the addition of stone buttresses, a fireplace and chimney, a stone porch with piers and steps, and a belfry with a cross. The belfry contains a bell from Our Lady of Tears Church in Silver City. Inside renovations included a stone floor, apa-tone wood paneling (which Bulanon proudly points out was imported from the Philippines), wrought-iron roof supports, filigree light fixtures and a cooper-toned ceiling.
The corpus on the crucifix is made of juniper. The arms on the cross are corral poles. (ICR photo/Gene Fadness)
In the center of the altar area is a crucifix carved from a juniper log. The arms are made from corral poles common in the ranching area. Photos by Gene Fadness Contributing Writer, Mary O’Malley
Even though the “founding” pastor of Our Lady Queen of Heaven, Father Herbert Merzbach, S.M., (1905-86) was not a member of one of the original settlers’ families, he was allowed to be buried in the pioneer cemetery alongside his mother, Maria, who died in 1960. (ICR photo/GeneFadness)
FATHER MERZBACH was beloved by the small congregation. Robbie O’Malley took this writer to the pioneer cemetery not far from the church, called “pioneer,” because only founding pioneers are interred there. However, an exception was made for Father Herzbach, who died in 1986, and his mother, Maria, who died in 1960, who are both buried there.
Also beloved is Father Jerry Funke, now pastor at St. Agnes in Weiser, who spearheaded a second major renovation in the 2000s while he was pastor at St. Paul’s in Nampa.
Some priests liked the trip to Oreana more than others. Father Jerry relished it, parishioners say. “He was very faithful about coming. He would rarely send the parochial vicar because he enjoyed coming so much,” one parishioner said.
The building, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places, was already falling into disrepair in the 1990s when it was designated a chapel because of the declining population in the area. Father Funke led the effort to get the roof replaced to prevent water leaking and stop leaking around the chimney. The project also included repairing the stones and mortar and adding rain gutters.
For their efforts, Preservation Idaho in 2013 awarded the church the Orchid Award for Heritage Stewardship and Father Funke received the Friend of Preservation Award.
After Father Funke was transferred, Father Taylor happily took on the task of providing Mass to the Oreana community.
“This church has to stay open because of its connection to the past,” Father Taylor said.
“For me, this is really a holy place,” Bulanon said. “It takes two hours of your time to drive here, but it is very much worth it. I wish more people would come here.”
The Bulanon and Mays families, both originally from the Philippines, are regular attendees at Our Lady Queen of Heaven. In the photo to the left provided by the Bulanon family are, from left, Emily Mays, Ella Bulanon, Ichiro Bulanon, Jiro Bulanon and Duke Bulanon. (Courtesy photo/Duke Bulanon)
Much of the information in this story is taken from a history written by Mary O’Malley
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